In Full Bloom

Garden for Wildlife celebrates 50 years

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Gardening
  • Mar 31, 2023

Lush vegetation, a cool pond and a mixture of shrubs and blooms create an oasis for wildlife at this Certified Wildlife Habitat® in Florida (above), one of nearly 300,000 such properties featuring primarily native plants that give wildlife places to feed, hide, breed and thrive. (Photo by Doreen S. Damm)

IN THE SONORAN DESERT outside Tucson, Arizona, a cactus wren calls from the top of a cholla cactus in Ellen Fountain’s backyard. Not far away, a pair of Gambel’s quail scurry out from under a 30-foot-tall mesquite tree. “I grew that tree from a seed,” says Fountain, who has also planted desert willow, autumn sage, prickly pear and other native plants in her National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat®. Gila woodpeckers nest in the saguaros scattered across her property, and, she says, “javelinas, deer and jackrabbits come into the yard to drink from one of the water stations.”

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An image of a fenced backyard in Tucson, with purple Texas sage blooms.

At Ellen Fountain’s Certified Wildlife Habitat in Tucson, purple Texas sage blooms (above), queen butterflies feed on Gregg’s mistflower (below) and a Harris’s antelope squirrel eats cholla cactus fruit (bottom).

When Fountain first began turning her 3.5 acres into a wildlife oasis in the early 2000s, she had no idea it would lead to something much bigger. But like the Federation’s Garden for Wildlife™ (GFW) program—celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—it took off. “Not long after I certified my property, one of my neighbors, Debbie Harrison, was walking by,” says Fountain. “She saw the NWF sign I had put up,” which proclaimed the yard’s status as wildlife habitat. Intrigued, Harrison stopped to talk. One thing led to another, and soon their neighborhood—Sweetwater in the Foothills—was on its way to earning certification as an NWF Community Wildlife Habitat™, the first in Arizona.

An image of Gregg's mistflower with queen butterflies.

During the past 50 years, Garden for Wildlife has blossomed into a nationwide movement to create wildlife habitats where people live, work, play, learn and worship. This year, NWF expects to hit a milestone of 300,000 individual certified habitats, and over the years it has added new programs and campaigns such as certified Community Wildlife Habitats, Schoolyard Habitats® and the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, all of which are thriving. “We are the oldest and longest-running wildlife gardening program in the country,” says GFW head Mary Phillips, “and we’ve contributed to the creation of an estimated 3.5 million wildlife-friendly acres across the United States.”

It all began back in 1973 when George H. Harrison, then managing editor of National Wildlife® magazine, heard about two U.S. Forest Service researchers, Richard DeGraaf and Jack Ward Thomas, who were studying ways to convert suburban yards into habitat. They found that if homeowners provide wildlife with four basic elements—food, water, cover and places to raise young—gardens can indeed become significant habitat, though on a small scale. DeGraaf and Thomas wrote an article for the magazine titled “Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard,” and it became the basis for NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program.

An image of Harris' Antelope squirrel feeding on cholla fruit.

Although individual yards like Fountain’s were initially the sole focus, certified habitats now exist at embassies, zoos, aquariums, public gardens, hospitals and even baseball stadiums. Outside an entrance to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team in Maryland, the NWF-certified Oriole Garden includes bee balm, coral bells and many other species of native plants that attract native birds and butterflies. At Zoo Miami’s certified habitat, custom roosts support resident colonies of Florida bonneted bats, federally listed as endangered. And in 2020 at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of The Links, Inc.—a social justice and service organization that promotes many causes, including STEM education for African Americans and other youth of color—staff and volunteers installed a pollinator garden that became NWF’s 250,000th certified habitat.

In addition, more than 1,000 U.S. places of worship have certified wildlife habitats, engaging churches, synagogues and mosques in environmental stewardship. Participants conduct a range of activities, including managing stormwater runoff with rain gardens, hosting native plant workshops and planting pollinator gardens, all of which provide green space and places of respite for people and wildlife.

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An image of a pollinator and vegetable garden at Brooklyn's P.S. 29.

At certified Schoolyard Habitats, kids enjoy hands-on learning about nature. Brooklyn’s P.S. 29, for example, features a thriving pollinator and vegetable garden (above). At Royal Palm Elementary in Miami, students observe donated Atala butterfly caterpillars in class then release them onto native coontie plants (below), the butterfly’s main host plant. 

Creating habitat stepping stones

The first major expansion of Garden for Wildlife came in 1996 when the Federation and Project WILD—a program of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies—launched the Schoolyard Habitats program to create wildlife habitat on school grounds. The network now includes 10,000 elementary, middle and high schools with spaces where wildlife—and kids—can flourish. In Brooklyn, New York, for example, kids at the P.S. 29 elementary school help maintain a thriving pollinator and vegetable garden. “Our garden is used as an outdoor classroom where students learn through observations, experimentation, hard work and trial and error,” says teacher Tina Aprea-Reres. “It’s also a place where they learn about the important relationships between plants, animals and humans.”

Immersion in such outdoor classrooms can also help improve student test scores, says Tina Marie Waliczek Cade, a professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Cade, along with several colleagues, has published three peer-reviewed papers investigating the academic impact of Schoolyard Habitats. In some cases, she says, research showed that students accessing the program had better math scores when compared with their peers in schools that used a more traditional curriculum. “With Schoolyard Habitats, students also develop an appreciation for nature,” says Cade. “And getting them outside calms them down.” Especially during the pandemic, she adds, there was “less depression, less anxiety and more hope.”

An image of students gardening at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami, Florida.

Garden for Wildlife expanded again in 1997 with the creation of its Community Wildlife Habitat program. “Once people have certified their yard, they often want to do more,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, NWF’s senior director of Community Wildlife Habitat. “One way to do that is to get the entire neighborhood involved.” To date, the program has certified 149 community habitats in cities of all sizes, from Harwich, Massachusetts, to Denver, Colorado.

One of the newest of these is Los Angeles, California, the second largest city in the country. Though known for its sprawl and massive freeways, it’s considered a biodiversity hotspot with more than 4,000 native plant and animal species, including bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions. In 2017, Paul Koretz, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, directed the LA Sanitation and Environment (LASAN) department to protect and enhance biodiversity in the city. Certifying it as an NWF Community Wildlife Habitat was a natural outgrowth of those efforts, says Michelle Barton, LASAN’s environmental supervisor. “We now have over 1,000 certified backyards,” she says, “and they create stepping stones that connect LA’s open spaces and natural areas.”

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An image of a child with a magnifying glass and monarch caterpillar at Royal Palm Elementary in Florida.

Royal Palm Elementary's pollinator garden also attracts monarch butterflies, whose vivid caterpillars captivate kids. Students sometimes read or journal in the school’s gardens because “nature is inspiring,” says teacher Marcia Cardona.

In some cities, mayors are particularly devoted to helping monarch butterflies, in serious decline due to climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss, particularly the loss of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only host plant. To enlist the help of municipal leaders, NWF in 2015 launched the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. Those who make the pledge commit to creating pollinator habitat and teaching residents about the monarch’s long-distance migration and how individuals can help save the species. Last year, the program set a single-year record with 345 new pledges in cities from Trenton, Maine, to Hillsboro, Oregon. With more than 1,200 pledges to date, the program has created nearly 9,000 acres of monarch habitat.

In Columbia Heights, Minnesota, Mayor Amáda Márquez Simula exemplifies the passion that many mayors bring to this effort. Because the eastern monarch migrates to Mexico—and because Columbia Heights has a large Spanish-speaking population—Simula began a bilingual monarch festival where residents learn about the butterfly’s international flight. The city also promotes “No Mow May” to help pollinators, gives out milkweed seeds, hosts viewings of the film “Flight of the Butterflies” and offers an online tool called “Map Our Monarchs” listing the city’s monarch-friendly yards. Residents love these programs “across generations,” Simula says. “They’ve learned how fragile the system is.”

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An image of the City of Weston's wetland mitigation area.

The Community Wildlife Habitat™ program has certified 149 communities and is working to certify another 152, including the City of Weston in Florida (above), which has restored more than 2,000 acres of wetlands. Participating in the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, encourages residents to plant for monarch butterflies (below).

Every bloom counts

Increasing habitat for bees, birds and butterflies has gained urgency in recent years. In 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the monarch butterfly endangered and added it to the Red List of Threatened Species. Many species of native bees and other insects are also in trouble. And a 2019 report in the journal Science indicated that there were 2.9 billion fewer breeding birds in the United States and Canada than there were five decades earlier—a drop of nearly 30 percent—with even common species such as sparrows and blackbirds declining in number.

An image of the Mayors monarch pledge sign in Columbia Heights.

Scientific research undertaken in the last dozen years has shown that NWF certified habitats can boost wildlife numbers and perhaps even help reverse these disturbing trends. In a 2021 paper published in Ecological Applications, 15 scientists examined residential yard management, including NWF certified habitats, in six U.S. cities. They documented many more bird species in the certified habitats, including wood thrushes, gray catbirds and pileated woodpeckers. Conversely, noncertified yards with large lawns tended to attract mostly nonnatives such as house sparrows and European starlings. They conclude that “yards, especially those managed for wildlife, support diverse, heterogeneous bird communities with high public interest and potential to support species of conservation concern.”

Certified habitats also support more wildlife by emphasizing sustainable practices such as minimizing pesticides and fertilizer, conserving water, relying on beneficial predatory insects to fight insect pests and growing native plants that have evolved with native wildlife. Indeed, research by University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy and his colleagues has shown that the use of native plants is often linked to substantial increases in the numbers of birds as well as bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects in a yard.

To help gardeners choose the best natives, NWF created the Native Plant Finder in collaboration with Tallamy and his colleagues. This free online tool helps gardeners pinpoint what trees, shrubs and perennials are native to their zip code and also which species host the highest numbers of butterfly and moth caterpillars that feed birds (especially nestlings).

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An image of staff and volunteers at The Links Inc. planting a pollinator garden.

At the Washington, D.C., headquarters of The Links, Inc., staff and volunteers planted a pollinator garden, which became NWF’s 250,000th Certified Wildlife Habitat—one of many milestones in this growing movement.

The most significant new development in the Garden for Wildlife program was the launch in 2021 of GFW, Inc. Through its website——people can order perennials and shrubs that are native to their area and curated to attract wildlife. Now available in 38 states and still expanding, the chemical-free plant collections—such as “Summer Songbird,” “Monarch Munchables” and “Firefly Delight”—come from native-plant nurseries and include planting instructions. “We removed the guesswork,” says Phillips. “We’re trying to supply not just plants but a planting experience that supports success.”

It seems gardeners are eager to take up their trowels to support the cause. “NWF’s Garden for Wildlife program has grown far beyond what we originally envisioned,” says Phillips, “and science is showing it makes a difference.” Perhaps the most encouraging news, she says, is that “surveys indicate one out of three people are now purchasing plants specifically to help wildlife. It really is a movement.”

NWF priority

Building a movement

The National Wildlife Federation recently teamed up with three notable wildlife gardening allies. Taylor Morrison, a national homebuilder, is enhancing biodiversity and restoring wildlife habitat by planting native plants and supporting monarchs in its communities nationwide. Tilly is an online firm designing sustainable wildlife gardens that meet NWF’s certification standards. And Wild Birds Unlimited, the NWF “Habitat Champion,” promotes habitat certification at its 334 U.S. stores.

Doreen Cubie is a frequent contributor and wildlife gardener.

“So many people go all over looking for wildlife, but if you give them a habitat, the wildlife comes to you.”—Doreen Damm

Doreen Damm and her husband, Bob, bought their Florida home in 2003 and soon began removing the lawn and installing water features, bird feeders and a rich mix of mainly native plants to support wildlife. Their garden became a Certified Wildlife Habitat in 2005 and now attracts a huge array of wild visitors, including those shown below. “I created the garden to be a refuge for wildlife, and in return it became a refuge for me and my husband,” Doreen says. “We sit in the garden to unwind and experience the simple joy of nature as it’s meant to be.”

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